The novel consists of a long, elegiac poem written by a poet named John Shade and a rambling commentary on the poem produced by a Professor Charles Kinbote. Comparing Kinbote’s commentary with Shade’s poem, one immediately discovers a strange disparity. Shade’s poem is a touching, emotional work portraying the poet’s attempt to understand the reality of death, the poignancy of loss, and the redeeming power of love in human life. Kinbote’s commentary, in contrast, interprets the poem as a veiled saga about the exiled king of a fabulous realm named Zembla. As he develops his commentary, Kinbote plunges deeper and deeper into his personal tale of Zemblan manners and intrigue, ultimately suggesting that he himself is that marvelous Zemblan king, Charles the Beloved.
Nabokov’s novel presents a humorous and unusual portrait of subjective reality. Kinbote’s extravagant attempts to project his fantasy onto Shade’s poem reflect an important theme in Nabokov’s fiction--that the creation of one’s inner vision is more real to an individual than the reality of the external world. Reading further into Kinbote’s commentary, however, one discovers profound links between Kinbote’s and Shade’s concerns. Both men attempt to deal with such concepts as suffering, loss, and love, and each tries to find order in the seemingly chaotic world of human experience, Shade through the structured processes of genuine art, and Kinbote through his anxiety-ridden...
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